The most extreme misstatement of the Oct. 9 US presidential debate was Hillary Clinton’s proposal for a no-fly zone in Syria. The Democratic candidate declared, “I, when I was secretary of state, advocated and I advocate today no-fly zones and safe zones. We need some leverage with the Russians, because they are not going to come to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution, unless there is some leverage over them.” Neither Donald Trump nor the debate moderators mentioned the obvious: Russian air defense makes a no-fly zone in Syria impractical.
The broader issue–and one that a Republican challenger might well exploit–is that American superiority in air defense systems has eroded under the Obama administration to the point that Russia well might have the ability to down American stealth aircraft. The Pentagon doesn’t know the answer to this question, and, understandably, doesn’t want to find out. The issue is not whether America and Russia might go to war over a downed American aircraft. That is most unlikely. America’s strategic credibility would suffer a catastrophic humiliation if stealth no longer defeated Russian anti-aircraft missiles.
Russia has already installed an S-400 air defense system in Syria, designed to kill combat aircraft, and announced that it will supplement the S-400 with the S-300V system, expanding the range of Russian air defenses in the region to 250 miles. Military Times Oct. 8 quoted Steve Zolaga, a defense analyst with the Teal Group, warning that “The Russians may have felt that they needed a certain package to deal with a full-blown American air campaign. The Russians sometimes come up with these really paranoid scenarios where they see war being imminent everywhere. If you have a paranoid assessment of what the West’s intentions are, then the S-300V makes a certain amount of sense.” Given Clinton’s proposal, Russia’s deployment seems less paranoid then preemptive.
The Obama administration has already distanced itself from Clinton’s no-fly proposal, on the grounds that it would not stop the killing on the ground. But the former Secretary of State’s insistence on the no-fly zone betrays a basic ignorance of the state of American defenses as well as arrogance about the prospective use of American military power.
More pertinent is the simple issue of capability. American defense experts acknowledge that Russia is working on advanced radar that can identity and target low-observation aircraft. National Interest defense editor Dave Majumdar reviewed the issue in an August 2016 survey. Mike Kofman of CNA Corporation opined to NI, “Russia has invested in low-band early warning radars, with some great variants out there, but can it use these to put a good picture together, and process it to develop a track against low-observation aircraft?”
American experts argue that the top-of-the-line Russian systems probably can take down American fourth-generation aircraft (the variants of the F-15, F-16, and F-18) but may not be able to defeat the F-22 Raptor — yet. Pro-Russian outlets like Russia Insider claim that the next generation of Russian air defense, the S-500 system scheduled for 2017 deployment, will “push the F-35 into retirement.”
The issue is not whether Russian radar can track stealth aircraft, but whether it can do so quickly and accurately enough to target missiles. That remains an unanswered question. A senior Defense Department official said on deep background that the Pentagon does not know the answer, and does not wish to find out the hard way.
The scandal lies in the uncertainty. At a total cost of $1.5 trillion, the F-35 stealth fighter program is the most expensive in the history of warfare, and so expensive that it has crowded alternatives out of the American defense budget. Apart from numerous operational problems afflicting the F-35 program, the risk is that the concept of the program may be fatally flawed, whether or not the airplane does what it is supposed to do. If Russian anti-missile radar can defeat the F-35, the United States will have put most of its eggs in very fragile basket.
That is a remarkable reversal from 1982, when American and Israeli avionics destroyed a Russian surface-to-air missile network in Syria, allowing the Israeli Air Force to destroy 90 Russian-built fighters in a single day–the so-called Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot. The collapse of Russian-built air defenses and the defeat of then-modern Russian aircraft helped persuade the Russian military leadership that it could not win a war against the United States. It was one of several developments, including the Russian debacle in Afghanistan, the shift in the central front strategic balance following the deployment of the Pershing intermediate-range missiles, and the American Strategic Defense Initiative, that won the Cold War.
The United States wasted some $4 trillion in its nation-building folly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Defense R&D has fallen by half as a percentage of GDP since the early 1990s, and a disproportionate share of the remaining R&D budget was diverted to the F-35 program. With far smaller resources, Russia has fielded a credible challenge to American air superiority. One might expect this issue to figure prominently in an American presidential campaign. Donald Trump has spoken in vague terms about the need to rebuild America’s military. He missed the chance to get down and dirty about the details at last night’s debate.
Editor’s note: The author sits on the board of Asia Times Holdings.